Restaurant Reviews

The World According to Vico

You can have too much of a good thing.

But not of the agnolotti rosa, a dish you could probably savor indefinitely: those silky, silver-dollar-sized rounds of homemade ravioli, scalloped edges folded around a dab of spinach and ricotta, tossed in a fresh tomato cream sauce.

Marco Vico was telling me about the second restaurant location he'd opened in April of 2003, Vico's Downtown. Popular Café Vico on Federal Highway near Sunrise Boulevard -- a place I'm drawn back to with scary regularity -- had spawned a twin on Broward Boulevard: same menu of homemade ravioli and veal Marsala, same gallant service, and a wine list slightly pared down from the original's 250 bottles. But when I called Vico's Downtown last week, a recorded message said dinner was a no-go. You can get a lunch of sandwiches and deli specials Monday through Friday. You can order takeout. Or you can book the space at night for big, family-style meals for private parties.

"I was competing with myself," Vico told me ruefully when I flagged him down last weekend after dinner at the old place. "My regular customers were splitting between the two locations, and there wasn't enough business to justify keeping them both open for dinner." I took a bite of Vico's blessedly bittersweet chocolate mousse pie and considered this. "Plus, my nephew was managing the place -- doing a fine job, but the long hours were getting to him."

There's a lesson. If you're going to open a satellite, you've got to put more than one interstate exit between Thing One and Thing Two. And you've got to get somebody to run the second location who has the same demon work ethic as a Brazilian émigré with a wife and two kids to feed.

Two years, Vico indicated as I drained the black dregs of my espresso, was long enough to wait for the dinner business to take off. "Maybe we'll do something completely different with the second spot," he said. "Since I'm from Brazil, we could do a steak house or something."

I'd love to know how many South Americans are running terrific neighborhood Italian joints in Broward County. I think Café Vico was the first restaurant I ever visited in Lauderdale, and its charm hasn't faded for me despite the importunities of younger, snazzier eateries, chefs with longer résumés, or Italian-cuisine burnout. Restaurateurs could use a Vico crash course in décor, for one thing -- the place is beautiful in the way that Hollywood actresses are beautiful: It radiates. As it happens, framed black-and-white stills of movie divas line the walls here -- a young Bette Davis, sultry prima donna, looking up from under pale eyelashes; bombshell Monroe in a scoop-neck top. An old film projector balanced in a nook and some ancient still cameras complete the effect. This interior takes the gracious elegance of Lauren Bacall and crosses it with the vivid sensuality of Sophia Lauren. Terra-cotta tiles on the floor, deep burnished woods at the bar. Melted-butter-colored walls, gleaming cobalt water glasses, hand-painted Italian pottery. Two faux ceilings seem to open into an azure sky, glowing like a backlit slab of aquamarine, the very color of the afterlife.

Vico, whose family name is actually Rodriguez (so many customers were calling him "Vico" that he unofficially adopted it), was headwaiter and managing partner at Café Vico when he convinced husband-and-wife team Victor Velasquez and Carlleen Wilson -- who now own PrimaNotte in downtown Hollywood -- to sell it to him in 1998. Vico; his wife, Éclair; and their two daughters put their imprimatur on the place, using their savings, loans from friends, and credit cards to gradually expand it, one room at a time, from a tiny, 28-seat space into a generously proportioned café that now occupies almost an entire block and seats a lively 130. Marco Vico's background as headwaiter pays off in outstanding service. A small, trim man of quiet energy and a quick smile, he greets all customers with old-world panache, kissing the hands of the ladies, bowing to the gentlemen. And throughout your meal, the nimble staff in their dark shirts and trousers never treat you with anything less than the highest consideration. "I tell my staff, 'Look at the person's face. How did he react when he took his first bite?'" Vico says. "You have to be a little bit of a psychologist." Finished plates are cleared unobtrusively, glasses are refilled, a complicated recitation of specials is executed. Nothing is rushed.

As good as the service is, I think it's still trumped by Vico's hand-made pastas and seafood soups -- what you remember, finally, when all the frills are peeled away, are the particular flavors of fresh buffalo mozzarella, a perfectly ripe tomato, a chiffonade of cinnamon-scented basil. The friend who introduced me to the place was a local chef, and I still remember her look of smug pride. Her appreciation for, say, a zuppa di calamari ($9.95) couldn't have been greater if she'd cooked it herself. I recall exactly what I ate that night four years ago -- the carpaccio di salmone ($11.95); a salad of mixed greens, goat cheese, and blueberries ($9.95); and freshly made green and white papardelle with sausage and rapini ($18.95).